Category Archives: A Dance to the Music of Time

Classical associations

A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell

Twelve volumes, around 3,000 pages, those are daunting numbers. It’s not surprising that A Dance to the Music of Time isn’t as widely read as it should be. That said, it’s bloody good. It’s also, actually, very easy to read.

It’s been a few months now since I finished the series, enough time for my thoughts on it to settle a bit. What strikes me now, with a little distance, is the extraordinary consistency it shows in terms of themes and characters. There’s a logic to the sequence, a whole which is greater than the sum of the (individually excellent) parts.

Here’s a paragraph from the opening of the first novel. In it, an elderly Nick Jenkins (the sequence’s narrator) sees workmen gathered around a fire in a coal bucket, warming themselves against the winter.

For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world – legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea – scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outwards like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seeminly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.

At the end of Dance, the centaur reference returns, and it’s not until the penultimate page of the final novel that we learn the circumstances in which Nick sees those workmen. The end of the series is the beginning, a literary Ourobouros capturing in its form one of its key themes – the cycle of time. In a sense, the paragraph above contains the whole work.

Dance is, however, about many things (chiefly old age, madness and death, as Hilary Spurling memorably put it). At the more obvious end, there’s the whole circle of life motif (cue swelling Disney music), in which generations arise to replace the ancients they find already populating the world on their arrival, grow older themselves until they become those they supplanted, and then are replaced in turn by yet newer generations.

Dance is also about the importance of the myth of self, of sustaining a personal narrative – a fiction one tells oneself about one’s own life so as to make sense of the world. It’s about too those who are able to force their personal narrative upon the world, to shape the world according to their own illusions, people who live the life of the will.

And then, of course, there are the characters. I recall most of their names even now, without needing to check them. They’re a memorable lot, Moreland, Sillery, Uncle Giles, Charles Stringham, Roland Gwatkin, Barnby, Pamela Flitton… Each of them is credible, yet ultimately unknown, we form views of them as Nick does, but a key point the sequence makes is that ultimately other people’s lives (and particularly their relationships) cannot ever be wholly understood. We see a fraction of each person we meet, we know them only as they are with us at a given time, which may not be how they are with others or even how they will be with us later. People don’t change, but circumstances do, presenting different facets of the same individual each time.

Among all these characters though, one stands out in particular. Kenneth Widmerpool. It could be argued that Nick is the Greek chorus to Widmerpool’s life, fate (authorial fiat) bringing them together time and again over the years so that Nick sees him from his earliest days at school through his business and political careers and his later entry into academia. Here is Widmerpool’s first appearance in the sequence:

By this stage of the year – exercise no longer contestable five days a week – the road was empty; except for Widmerpool, in a sweater once white and cap at least a size too small, hobbling unevenly, though with deterrmination, on the flat heels of spiked running-shoes. Slowly but surely he loomed through the dusk towards me as I walked back – well wrapped up, I remember – from an expedition to the High Street. Widmerpool was known to go voluntarily for ‘a run’ by himself every afternoon. This was his return from trotting across the plough in drizzle that had been falling since early school. I had, of course, often seen him before, because we were in the same house; even spoken with him, though he was a bit older than myself. Anecdotes, relating to his acknowledged oddness were also familiar; but before that moment such stories had not made him live. It was on the bleak December tarmac of that Saturday afternoon in, I suppose, the year 1921 that Widmerpool, fairly heavily built, thick lips and metal-rimmed spectacles giving his face as usual an aggrieved expression, first took coherent form in my mind. As the damp, insistent cold struck up from the road, two thin jets of steam drifted out of his nostrils, by nature much distended, and all at once he seemed to possess a painful solidarity that talk about him had never conveyed. Something comfortless and inelegant in his appearance suddenly impressed itself on the observer, as stiffly, almost majestically, Widmerpool moved on his heels out of the mist.

So enters Widmerpool, one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in literature, absurd, pitiful, slightly monstrous.

There’s a sense, of course, of middle class soap opera to it all. The novels trace the lives of various, mostly upper middle class, people as they grow up, marry, have affairs, pursue careers and so on. Part of the interest is who ends up with whom, for how long, what happens to so and so. That’s the same interest which keeps viewers tuned in to soaps, week in, week out. The difference, if there is one, is partly in the wider themes mentioned above that the novels contain, but also just in the sheer quality of the writing and the ambition of it all. Yes, it’s interesting to see what happens to Mark Members and how his early promise pans out, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a sense of timelessness embedded in time, of patterns recurring, individuals coming and going but the nature of human experience remaining the same.

The Anthony Powell Society on one of the pages of its website comments that no “… volume-by-volume summary seems to do justice to Dance, only make it sound like a soap-opera. In summarising such a complex and lengthy work one is bound to remove not just the great writing but all the nuances and the majority of the characters.” That’s very true, in fact having written a volume by volume summary I’m painfully conscious how true that is. Whole books have been written about the sequence, I’m not going to even attempt to address its complexities in this one blog post, but I do think it’s worth quoting what the Anthony Powell Society view “probably one of the best ever summaries of Dance.”

This twelve-volume sequence [A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life’s poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. Until the last three volumes, the next standard excitements of old-fashioned plots (What will happen next? Will x marry y? Will y murder z?) seem far less important than time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers in intricate human arabesques.”
[Robert L Selig; Time and Anthony Powell, A Critical Study]

I don’t use the term masterpiece much. A Dance to the Music of Time is though just that, a masterpiece. Yes, it’s daunting to start a series that long, that many volumes and pages. But if you read it as I did, a month or so between each book, it’s actually surprisingly easy. Time and again I found myself intimidated by the size of it all, but each individual novel was delightful, funny and clever and well written. If I read a bad book, I’d read a Powell afterwards to refresh myself. There’s no need to sit down and decide to dedicate yourself to reading them all, you just need to read the first, then if you like it (and you likely will) some time later the second. And so on. Anthony Powell took years to write them all, there’s no hurry to read them all. But, if you do, it will be worth it.

And well, I’ve not even touched on the connections with Proust, the use of Poussin’s painting and other artistic references, the often strong parallels between the characters and real individuals in Powell’s life (and with Powell himself). As I said above, whole books have been written on Dance, there’s a limit to what I can do here.

While writing this blog entry, I came across this article in Salon magazine (which contains spoilers). It’s an excellent piece, well worth reading if you’re already familiar with Dance’s storyline. And if you’re not familiar with it, well, there are far worse companions to be had as we take our own places in the dance and await our own turns for old age, madness and death…


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

Deaths crayfishing are comparatively rare

Hearing Secret Harmonies, by Anthony Powell

Hearing Secret Harmonies is the twelfth, and final, volume of Anthony Powell’s 3,000 page epic sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s taken me over a year and a half to read through them (with breaks for other books, obviously), and on finishing it last night I found myself looking at the opening pages of the first novel again – tempted to restart and hugely impressed at how it all came together in a thematic whole.

Thankfully, the journey is worthwhile. I’ll be buying more Powell, and while I may give it a few years before rereading this series I hope I do reread it. I’ll put up a separate post in a few days summarising my thoughts on the entire sequence, this post however is largely just about Hearing Secret Harmonies itself.

The problem I always have writing about the Powell’s is that I’m conscious anyone reading this may not have read the books yet, and I don’t want to spoil them. That means the further in I get, the harder it gets to say anything at all, for fear of revealing characters’ story arcs or unexpected developments.

So, this is going to be in some senses a very partial writeup. I don’t want to reveal more than the back of the book would, so I won’t be talking too much about character outcomes or anything of that nature, nor can I discuss in any detail the power of the final five pages – though I will say that the sequence as a whole has a remarkable thematic consistency which means that the work as a whole is greater than the sum of its (generally excellent) parts.

As Harmonies opens, Nick and Isobel are living in the country. It is the 1960s, Nick is largely retired and he and Isobel are letting their niece Fiona and some of her companions stay in a caravan on their land. Those companions include the redoubtable Scorpio Murtlock, a young cult leader who keeps strict control over Fiona and his other followers and who speaks of harmony in a way reminiscent of the now long dead Dr Trelawney (whose spirit, albeit unmanifested, hovers over much of this volume).

Nick, as ever, is tolerant of the foibles of others. It takes more than what are to him near-children in blue robes with curious religious practices to surprise him. Scorpio, however, catches his interest and it is clear that he is another example of a man who lives by the will, a man who imposes his personal myth (a phrase used more than once here) on others and shapes reality around him by sheer intent.

Other new characters are introduced, Barnabas who is a member of Scorpio’s cult, Fiona herself now she is an adult, and as ever many characters recur – Quiggin and Ada Leintwardine, Gwinnet, Dr Emily Brightman, even Bithel, but it is noticeable that by now most of the characters from the earlier books are gone, dead.

The dead, however, are not always quiet. Although the book contains no literal ghosts, the arrival of new generations means that some of the deceased are reevaluated, given new posthumous life. The novelist St. John Clarke and artist Deacon are critically reappraised, Dr Trelawney’s occult philosophy gains a currency it never seemed to achieve in his life. Characters leave the stage, but sometimes some part of them lingers on regardless.

In any case it was impossible to disregard the fact that, while a dismantling process steadily curtails members of the cast, items of the scenery, airs played by the orchestra, in the performance that has included one’s own walk-on part for more than a few decades, simultaneous derequisitionings are also to be observed. Mummers return, who might have been supposed to have made their final exit, even if – like Dr Trelawney and Mrs Erdleigh – somewhat in the rôle of Hamlet’s father. The touching up of time-expired sets, reshaping of derelict props, updating of old refrains, are none of them uncommon.

That quote illustrates the key themes of the series, apparently described by Powell’s friend Hilary Spurling as being old age, madness and death, but for me also including the bizarre mix of the random and the strangely fitting that so much of life consists of. It also illustrates a weakness of this final volume, the language isn’t always as tight as earlier novels in the sequence (“simultaneous derequisitionings are also to be observed” is not for me a great line). That said, while generally I have a great regard for Powell’s prose, it’s ultimately the humanity and life of his creation that one reads for – the style is a bonus, not the point.

Classical motifs continue to permeate Hearing Secret Harmonies, as they have in other volumes. Here Orlando Furioso and his quest with Astolpho to the moon (where they find all the lost things of Earth) is key. Orlando was a hero who lost his wits, at least for a while, unable to reconcile his personal myth with his reality. Widmerpool too now struggles with that conflict, he has become a university chancellor but appears increasingly confused and adrift as he enters his final years.

Widmerpool is still, of course, at the heart of the story. There’s a good argument to be made that Widmerpool is Dance’s real protagonist, Nick certainly isn’t – he’s simply an observer. Widmerpool, first met as a schoolboy running through the mist, has by sheer determination risen to become an MP and eventually to join the House of Lords, but like Nick his days of temporary kingship are now behind him and his crown has passed to younger men.

Most of Nick’s generation have accepted the passing of their moment of glory (such as it was) with reasonably good grace, now spending their days instead worrying about children or sitting on the occasional literary committee. Widmerpool, as ever, is different and as obsolescence faces him he surrounds himself with students from his university and increasingly takes the side of the radical youth movements the ’60s are giving birth to. They tolerate him, but he cannot be one of them, he is quite simply too old. He is at best useful, and Widmerpool’s confused attempts to remain relevant, to continue to hold power now his day is past, are pathetic – something never previously true of Widmerpool who has often been repugnant but rarely pitiable.

Old age, madness and death. Not quite the stuff bestsellers are made of. There’s humour too though, dry comments like the one I titled this post with, or an observation that the firmest foundation of the “publishing profession” (now we call it the publishing industry of course) is that you can’t libel the dead, but it’s fair to say this isn’t the cheeriest volume. Nick’s world is dying around him, at one point he attends a gallery opening and is met with frank disbelief when he speaks of having known the artist, that world now so distant to the gallery owner that to him it’s an epoch as distant as the middle ages. Nick’s own life is passing into history before his eyes.

Powell offers too some parting thoughts on the form of the novel itself, via remembered comments of Trapnel’s. Trapnel held that the novel is superior to biography as a vehicle for truth, that it’s more serious. “What is effective is art, not what is “true””. Perhaps that’s a counter to another criticism I might make of the whole series, the extraordinary levels of coincidence that run through it. Characters bump into each other through levels of chance which are vanishingly unlikely, lives intertwine serendipitously in a way real lives rarely manage. But then, this is art, it isn’t “true” – it’s more serious than that.

Harmonies is ultimately a bleak book, most of Dance’s characters after all are dead before it opens, a few more die during this volume and of those who remain at the end it’s plain that their days are increasingly numbered. So it goes for all of us of course, and while it’s true that the themes include madness, old age and death that’s definitely not the whole story (to be fair, I’ve not yet read Spurling’s book on Dance, her views are likely more complex than four words can fairly summarise). For me, another theme is that life continues, we’re part of it but only briefly, and our own part is likely not that different to the parts others had before us. Dance constantly references the classics, and the truth is were they to somehow see it, transported back in time, the Greeks and Romans would recognise its themes and characters without difficulty.

Humanity never really changes. Every day, we hear news of important events, earthquakes, wars, murders and massacres. We hear too more personal news, of weddings, lawsuits, arguments between friends. Some prosper, some deservedly and some not, while others fail to achieve their promise. Works of art are created, others are lost, some are forgotten, some (like St. John Clarke’s novels) recovered from among the lost things. There’s a vast hubbub even to the quietest life, a sheer volume of incident that makes our own time seem special, the attraction of apocalypses I think is that they make our own days all the more important – if the world continues after us after all how important were we?

For me, all this is core to Dance. We are all of us at a dance to the music of time, the dancers and the music may change but the dance ultimately doesn’t. Nick, Widmerpool, Quiggin, Gwinnet et al come to their winters just as we shall (if we make it that far), but others have already taken their places. Whether that’s cheering, or profoundly depressing, I’m not sure. But either way, it is.

It seemed to start so well, and end so badly. Perhaps that’s how well constructed stories ought to terminate.

Perhaps. Dance doesn’t end badly, it’s a fitting end to an extraordinary sequence, for me the whole thing is a huge achievement in English literature. But for all its comic brilliance, it’s perhaps more a tragedy than a comedy. And for all the men of the will dominate it, I don’t think it makes being one of them a particularly attractive prospect. The Greeks would recognise that, too.

A Dance to the Music of Time


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

Being the temporary king is what matters

Temporary Kings, by Anthony Powell

Temporary Kings is book eleven of A Dance to the Music of Time, it’s exceptional. It’s now the 1950s, Nick and his friends are at the peak of their careers, the new establishment, they’ve made their money and reputations (to the extent they’ll ever make either) and they’re enjoying both, but in the knowledge that neither will last.

The title is a reference to the practice in the ancient world (according to some sources, anyway), of appointing kings for a brief period, at the end of which they would be executed. Nick and his friends are temporary kings, rulers of the world, but not for long.

The novel takes place largely in Venice, I didn’t know that when I started it and if I had I might have left it a bit longer, having just finished two books about the place. As it was though, it worked quite well, and the fading grandeur of the city works as an unobtrusive metaphor for the characters themselves – glittering but perhaps no longer at their prime. Many earlier characters recur, Mark Members for example – the “coming man” of Nick’s university days, as well as new ones such as the entertaining academic Dr. Emily Brightman. At its centre though is Pamela, who continues to behave with an utter disregard for propriety and convention, often acting from sheer malicious impulse. Pamela is a spiritual sister to Patrick Hamilton’s Netta, a monster of sorts, though she is far from the only one.

The difficulty with writing about this volume is avoiding spoilers for earlier ones, a remark about what somebody is doing or who is married to whom could give away a major development in an earlier book. I’m going to avoid then talking too much about the plot, save to say that as with each previous volume it focuses on a number of episodes in Nick’s life (a conference in Venice, a visit to a palazzo with a Tiepolo ceiling of unusual symbolic significance to the characters, a visit to an artist’s studio, a visit to Bashaw’s new home, a charity concert) and that as ever it’s not really what happens that’s important as what it tells us about the people it happens to.

Powell is still very funny, dryly so, and yet what seems a joke on first encounter often turns out to foreshadow darker developments later. This quote comes from page two:

To exhibit themselves, perform before a crowd, is the keenest pleasure many people know, yet self-presentation without a basis in art is liable to crumble into dust and ashes.

It works because it’s true, and when first encountered it’s just a throwaway line. As the novel continues though, it becomes obvious just how true it is (particularly for some of the characters) and it ceases then to be funny at all.

The experience of aging runs through this novel. Nick meets Polly Duport, daughter of his former lover Jean Duport. Polly is now a successful actress, her own career blossoming. It’s clear that Nick and his generation are being replaced. Earlier in the novel, while wandering Venice, Nick reflects on the Futurists and it’s hard not to see their hopes and fate as that of almost every generation:

At the beginning of the century, Marinetti and the Futurists had wanted to make a fresh start – whatever that might mean – advocating, among other projects, filling up the Venetian canals with the rubble of the Venetian palaces. Now, the Futurists, with their sentimentality about the future, primitive machinery, vintage motor-cars, seemed as antiquely picturesque as the Doge in the Bucentaur, wedding his bride the Sea, almost as distant in time; though true a desire to destroy, a hatred and fear of the past, remained a constant in human behaviour.

Vintage cars are a key running element in this volume, a metaphor for the passage of life, for the major characters themselves who are now antique and yet are still valuable, though not perhaps running for much longer. Like the Futurists, they too once wanted to make a fresh start, as every generation does, now they too increasingly are antiquely picturesque. Interestingly, Debray in Against Venice made much the same point of the Futurists, but then their fate is peculiarly ironic (and perhaps fitting given some of their more unpleasant views).

The characters in Books do Furnish a Room mostly continue here, Ada Leintwardine (who “arrogated to herself all the world’s gossip, sources other than her own a presumption”) is increasingly a figure of note, Baghaw is now successfully working on television, X Trapnel is the subject of a biography and so continues to be a sort of presence. As well, some much older characters return. Mrs Erdleigh for example, that seemingly ageless mystic and fortune-teller. She discusses the now deceased Dr Trelawney with Nick, referring to his passing not as something so vulgar as death but rather as when the soul “hearing secret harmonies” ascends. As the series draws to its close, more of the characters are starting to hear those secret harmonies, and given the title of the next and final volume it’s likely that more of them will yet. The reign of a temporary king is brief.

Generally, this is a volume which draws together the themes of the whole cycle. The importance of personal mythology recurs. I mentioned that Bagshaw is now a success, with that he has settled down and now has a wife, family and house of his own:

There was no reason why Bagshaw should not possess a house, nor in general be taken less seriously than other people. No doubt, for his own purposes, he had done a good deal to encourage a view of himself as a grotesque figure, moving through a world of farce. Come to rest in relatively prosperous circumstances, he had now modified the rôle for which he had formerly typecast himself. Dynamic styles of life required one ‘image’; static, another.

Like Trapnel, like so many others, Bagshaw creates a role for himself. He performs before a crowd, as we all do, and the performance changes with his circumstances. How he sees himself, what happens within his own thoughts, is unknown and unknowable.

And of course that’s another of the key themes, the impossibility of really knowing other people. We make friends, enemies, lovers, but at the end of the day our own motivations often escape us. The motivations of others, the secrets of their lives, really we have no idea. Dance doesn’t show characters changing so much as it shows their circumstances changing and with those new circumstances new aspects of them coming to the fore. Who we are depends on where and when we are, and who we are may anyway be nothing more than a fiction we present.

The most unknowable thing of all is other people’s relationships, the truths inside them. We can guess, we can swap gossip, but ultimately whatever happens within a relationship is known only to those inside it. By its nature, others can never really understand its nuances. As Moreland says (here more specifically about sex):

‘All other people’s sexual relations are hard to imagine. The more staid the people, the more inconceivable their sexual relations.’

Temporary Kings has a definite feel of the dance drawing to a close. The recurrence of older characters (I saw an online comment referring to them as making curtain calls, which is about right), the tying together of storylines and the reminders of long running character arcs and themes of the series, all of it is building towards the conclusion. Along the way, there’s a great deal of consideration of myth, antiquity, art and the creative process. This is a rich and complex novel (though still easy to follow), but it’s also very much the penultimate work of the series. It’s hardly original to compare Dance to a symphony, but I will anyway. Here the instruments are coming together in unity and purpose, earlier motifs (major and minor) are worked back in and the whole orchestra is coming together in a way that couldn’t have been foreseen and yet is absolutely right.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a masterpiece. This is a strong volume, hugely entertaining, filled with comedy and melancholy, and ultimately a fair degree of tragedy. Characters die, and with some of them it is only when they die we realise how much they mattered to Nick (as often, it’s only when people die in real life we realise how much they mattered to us).

Powell often references the classics (the first novel opens with a classical reference), and the plot of this novel turns on the classical scene depicted in a Tiepolo ceiling. It’s no coincidence that I find myself reaching for terms like comedy and tragedy, part after all of what Powell is saying is that the ancients may have died, but so will we, and in the end although the surroundings may change human experience really doesn’t all that much.

Temporary Kings


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

All my sad captains

Books do Furnish a Room is volume ten of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The war is over, Britain is poor and London is filled with empty and ruined buildings. The main characters are now middle aged, and the new characters introduced are noticeably younger, creating an impression of time passing and one generation replacing another.

One of the more interesting elements with Dance is its mixture of comedy and sadness, Powell can write exceptionally funny scenes and yet in the same novel show crushed hopes, failed relationships, lost friends. Books is not an exception. There is a sense in it of the cost of the war, many characters I’d come to rather like are now dead and some of those who remain are not what they once were. Equally though there are new characters, and some of those are very good indeed. Best among them is the hugely entertaining X Trapnel, apparently closely based on Powell’s friend and fellow novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross (author of Of Love and Hunger, which I can’t recommend to highly, particularly if you like Patrick Hamilton at all). Trapnel is an up and coming young novelist, highly praised, popular with women but perpetually broke and borrowing money (except from fellow writers, unless absolutely necessary).

Books chiefly follows the fortunes of a new post-war literary magazine, Fission. Nick Jenkins comes to write for Fission, and so sees its editors, backers, reviewers and writers (among them X Trapnel). Nick himself is taking a break from novels and instead writing a biography and supplementing his income with reviews, but as ever Dance is not really Nick’s story, he is narrator but not protagonist. Many existing characters become part of Fission’s life, J.G. Quiggin who has finally abandoned trying to write his great novel, Widmerpool of course who is one of the backers, Gypsy Jones and Rosie Manasch, former intelligence officer Odo Stevens and others.

Fission is a left-leaning magazine, though quite how left-leaning is a source of internal dissension. Some behind the magazine are communists who wish to use the magazine to promote the party line, others are most soft-left and unwilling to have the magazine seen as a mere mouthpiece. The real problems it faces though are more about how to cover a bad book by a writer previously promoted by the magazine and how to keep rival critics apart at a party, to the backers the politics matters but to the writers and reviewers the literary credentials are all that is important.

Books speaks also though to the change of generations, there’s a real sense of a passing of the flame. Nick returns to Oxford (“the University”) as part of his researches for his biography, where he once more attends the salon of the aging yet ageless don, Sillery. Later in the novel Nick returns to his old school, looking to place his own son there, where he encounters the long retired Le Bas, pressed briefly and unhappily back into service. Sillery and Le Bas are among the few characters who were old at the start of the sequence who are still alive, Nick now is attending school and university as an adult with adult concerns, not as a student, but too as Nick’s generation matures and the generation behind his declines, the younger generation is pushing through in the form of X Trapnel and the increasingly vile Pamela Flitton (as was).

There are, as ever, some quite wonderful lines. This is the opening sentence of the novel:

Reverting to the university at forty, one immediately recaptured all the crushing melancholy of the undergraduate condition.

Books follows the pattern of other Dance novels in exploring a few scenes in depth: Sillery’s salon, a funeral, Fission’s launch party, trips to the pub, a visit to parliament and a trip to Widmerpool’s apartment, visits to X Trapnel’s apartment, Nick’s return to his school to place his own son there. Each incident is part of a chain of consequences, tracing Fission’s development and the intertwining lives of the various characters, particularly Widmerpool who continues to be the nearest Dance has to a protagonist and who here has risen to become an MP, and of course an up and coming one at that.

Books also spends a fair amount of time, through X Trapnel, discussing naturalism and the nature of the novel. Much of this is fascinating, and Trapnel’s comments are often quite blatantly applicable to Dance itself. I’ll go into that more shortly, for now though here’s one remark which I think has much to recommend it:

A novelist writes what he is. That’s equally true of mediaeval romances or journeys to the moon.

Powell’s portrait of the postwar London literary scene is wholly convincing, unsurprisingly so given that he was after all part of precisely that scene. Equally, there is a wry feel for parliament and the way in which politicians feel more comfortable dealing with each other (even their opponents) than they do the public, but above all this is the continuing theme of the series – the importance of crafting a personal mythology to live by, the refusal by some to live by mere reality, the ability of the individual to live by the will and so craft their own narrative within the world. Nick is an observer, not an actor, Widmerpool is oblivious to the reality of how others see him or the consequences of his a ctions and so shapes the world rather than being shaped by it. In a way, that makes Widmerpool a monster, but a morbidly fascinating one.

On the subject of Widmerpool, I thought this passage quite marvellous, Books was written nearly 40 years ago but politicians clearly haven’t changed much since then:

“… I fear pomposity is not one of my failings. I can’t put up with pompous people, and have often been in trouble on that very account.”
Roddy was determined not to be outdone in detestation of pomposity and superfluous formality. For a moment the two MPs were in sharp competition as to whose passion for directness and simplicity was the more hearfelt, at least could be the more forcibly expressed. At the end of this contest, Widmerpool carried his point.

Was there ever any doubt he would?

For me, the most enjoyable part of this novel was the character of X Trapnel, another man who lives by personal myth, Trapnel has a role for every occasion and lives according to his concept of who he should be. A man constantly in debt, he travels everywhere by taxi and is capable of borrowing money from a man only to then hail a cab to depart with or offer to buy his creditor a drink with the proceeds of the loan just advanced. Serious about his writing, crafting his life itself as a form of art, Trapnel is a wonderful creation (though, based on Maclaren-Ross as he apparently is there may not have been much creation at all).

Almost as good was the increased focus on Pamela Flitton, we learn more of her and her consistently appalling and wholly self-centred behaviour, the consequences of which are sometimes very funny (at the funeral and afterwards for instance) but more often needlessly vicious. We also see more of her devastating effect on men and it becomes increasingly apparent that there is something fundamentally wrong with her, that she is essentially a monster herself, damaged and damaging. A character that would fit quite happily into a Patrick Hamilton novel, Pamela too is a superb creation, attractive in part because of her intrinsic lack of any form of virtue. In my last Powell writeup, Kevin of Kevinfromcanada commented that Pamela is “without guile and morality”, an excellent point which helps capture her allure.

Near the end of the novel comes a three page discussion of the nature of Naturalism as a literary form, really a drunken monologue by X Trapnel while he seeks to avoid going home. I’ve no idea whether the views expressed are Powell’s, Maclaren-Ross’s or indeed just X Trapnel’s, but whoever’s they are I thought them interesting and persuasive, here are some excerpts from that section:

“People can’t get it right about Naturalism. They think if a writer like me writes the sorts of books I do, it’s because that’s easier, or necessary nowadays. You just look round at what’s happening and shove it all down. They can’t understand that’s not in the least the case. It’s just as selective, just as artificial, as if the characters were kings and queens speaking in blank verse.”

“There are certain forms of human behaviour no actor can really play, no matter how good he is. It’s the same in life. Human beings aren’t subtle enough to play their part. That’s where art comes in.”

“I’m in favour of Naturalism. I write that way myself. All I want to make clear is that it’s just a way of writing a novel like any other, just as contrived, just as selective.

I’m fond of Naturalism myself, however I absolutely agree that it’s as artificial as any other literary form, and these arguments hold good for Realism too. By way of example, Haruki Murakami has written both surrealist fiction and Naturalist fiction, but the artifice in both cases is the same. I think this is an important argument, Realism and Naturalism have become the default modes for literary fiction, indeed Michael Chabon described literary fiction as being the genre of “late-Century naturalism” (a view I don’t wholly agree with but think is at least worth considering). It’s important to recall that these forms are not necessarily superior or truer than the many alternatives that exist.

All that though makes Books sound like a dry read, it’s not at all. I can’t discuss the ending for fear of massively spoiling several developments, but it contains drama and pathos and a degree of simple cruelty that make it very powerful. There is a vicious irony to this novel, and a clash of wills between Gypsy Jones, X Trapnel, Odo Stevens, Pamela and Widmerpool (all of whom of course are among the characters who live by the will) that is terrible and tragic. This wasn’t my favourite of the sequence, though it was hardly helped by my going down with yet another Winter bug myself while reading it (though having a slight fever did make Arthur Scnitzler’s Dying ,which I just recently finished, a little more dramatic. Unfortunately I have it still as I write this), but it is a powerful novel that clearly marks the start of winter and the decline of what has gone before.

Books do Furnish a Room


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

Few subjects are more fascinating than other people’s sexual habits from the outside

The Military Philosophers is the ninth volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Dance is broken into four seasons with three books in each, this then is the last book of Autumn.

In the first six volumes, Spring and Summer, Powell introduced a huge and complex cast, each skilfully brought to life. Part of Powell’s mastery is his ability to introduce and reintroduce characters, reminding the reader who they are without tedious exposition or the need for caricature. By the mid-point of the twelve volume whole he has populated a living London, a world filled with friends, family, lovers, rivals, acquaintances.

The Autumn novels cover the war years, and now that I’ve finished The Military Philosophers I can say that nothing else I have read has brought home for me the cost of those years. War novels typically show the horrors of the front, the casual death and sudden brutalities. Powell is not so obvious. He takes time to let us get to know people, as in real life we may not like all of them but we become accustomed to them. Then, as the war continues, many of them leave the dance never to return. As a rule they do not leave in dramatic fashion, Nick Jenkins (the narrator) is an intelligence officer in London and so when he hears of deaths he hears of them second hand, news of another exit. The effect for the reader is that as time goes on people simply stop being part of Nick’s (and our) world. They become an absence, an emptiness where once there was a person.

There is a huge power to this, some deaths may be dramatic in their own terms, but the effect in the novel is as in life – as one gets older from time to time one hears that a friend, family member, distant acquaintance even has died and one never sees them again. One hears that a great-uncle was hit by a car, a friend’s sister fell ill and didn’t recover, a multitude of fates all with the same end. In the war, that experience we all have (if we live long enough) is magnified many times over, and by the end of The Military Philosophers many of Dance’s characters, major and minor both, are simply gone.

The Military Philosophers opens in Spring 1942, and closes in 1945 with Nick Jenkins picking out his demob suit. As ever, the novel focuses on a handful of incidents over its period, a cabinet office meeting, time spent on liaison duties with allies, a night sheltering from an air raid, a tour with various military attachés of liberated France, the thanksgiving service for the end of the European war.

By this point, the possibility of severely damaging the work for others by discussing plot details is very high, part of the pleasure of Dance is how the courses of people’s lives turn, how some succeed with seeming inevitability while others fade from view. Early promise is fulfilled or frustrated, people marry or remarry, those we think we know are seen in new lights. Powell uses the space he has given himself to show how people change, or don’t, as the years pass and part of the increasing triumph for me of this series is how despite the fact my own life and background bears no resemblance to anyone in Dance, the pattern of their lives rings true for me all the same.

All of which makes this sound terribly serious, and though it is it’s also very funny. There’s a continued use of (often wonderfully inappropriate) classical references, and though I’m reasonably good on my classics I’m not a patch on Powell and it’s obvious if I were better there are extra levels here I would pick up. Even with my understanding though, it’s hard not to be amused at the excess of some of the comparisons, such as here where Nick heads to his boss’s office after a meeting in a basement office:

Like Orpheus or Herakles returning from the silent shades of Tartarus, I set off upstairs again, the objective now Finn’s room on the second floor.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had too in Powell’s prose, his excellent descriptions such as here where he details a rather desolate scene in liberated France:

In one of these secluded pastoral tracks, a Corot landscape of tall poplars and water meadows executed in light greys, greens and blues, an overturned staff-car, wheels in the air, lay sunk in long grass. The camouflaged bodywork was already eaten away by rust, giving an impression of abandonment by that brook decades before. High up in the branches of one of the poplars, positioned like a cunningly contrived scarecrow, the tatters of a field-grey tunic, black-and-white collar patches jut discernible, fluttered in the faint breeze and hard cold sunlight. The isolation of the two entities, car and uniform, was complete. There seemed no explanation of why either had come to rest where it was.

And here, in a much earlier scene, where Nick is required to visit the office of one of the more obfuscatory elements of the British civil service:

The stairs above the second floor led up into a rookery of lesser activities, some fairly obscure of definition. On these higher storeys dwelt the Civil branches and their subsidiares, Finance, Internal Administration, Passive Air Defence, all diminishing in official prestige as the altitude steepened. Finally the explorer converged on attics under the eaves, where crusty hermits lunched frugally from paper bags, amongst crumb-powdered files and documents ineradicably tattooed with the circular brand of the teacup. At these heights, vestiges of hastily snatched meals endured throughout all seasons, eternal as the unmelted upland snows. Here, under the leads, like some unjustly confined prisoner of the Council of Ten, lived Blackhead.

Blackhead is a minor character, a type almost, the Platonic form of the civil servant made flesh, “the mystic holy essence incarnate of arguing, encumbering, delaying, hair-splitting, all for the best of reasons.”

Other characters are developed in this volume, most notably Pamela Flitton – a strikingly attractive girl whose “rankling animosity against the world in general was discharged with adamantine force…” Flitton moves from man to man, provoking minor scandals and using her near-irresistible magnetic force to lure men to her often to their vast disadvantage. Like so many, she is a person who lives by the will, her sheer force of personality bending the world around her. Existing characters recur, Peter Templer, Odo Stephens, Mrs. Erdleigh and others.

And, of course, Widmerpool returns. Widmerpool by this point is the nearest thing Dance has to a protagonist, his will carrying him ever upwards to new heights of power and prestige. He is a monster, a man who shows no loyalty or compassion at all to those he leaves behind in his wake, yet remains a brilliantly drawn character. I particularly liked this line, where Widmerpool runs into Nick and his wife at the theatre: “Widmerpool, who had met Isobel in the past, peered closely to make sure I was out with my wife, and said good evening.”

As the story moves into France, references to Proust become more explicit, with Nick encountering some of the locations that are used in his In Search of Lost Time. I haven’t read Proust yet, it’s my project for 2010, and I rather regret that because in part Dance seems inspired by Proust’s work and as with the classics there are references I suspect I’m missing that I would pick up if I’d read In Search already.

At the end though, a work as layered and complex as Dance will always be at least partly inaccessible, there will always be more in there, nuances that another reader would see that I do not. That’s inevitable, and in a way is a testament to the work. I’m already excited at the prospect of finishing the series, now too I find myself looking forward to one day rereading it, so that I can see it all unfold again with knowledge of what is to come.

Still, for now it is the mix of comedy and tragedy (an appropriately Grecian contrast which Powell would appreciate) that sticks with me. Death, fear, disappointment, ruined hopes, but also friendship, warmth, the foibles of humanity. The follies of the powerful come up often, there is a wonderful section involving a race between a party of foreign generals for who gets the only bath in a guest house. There’s also a marvellous section consisting largely of Nick’s thoughts wandering as he sits in the victory thanksgiving service, musing on the meanings of the hymns and observing the people around him:

General Asbjørnsen certainly enjoyed singing the words. He was quite flushed in the face, like a suddenly converted Viking, joining in with the monks instead of massacring them.

There’s a humanity in all of this which runs right through this work, this series indeed. Not perhaps a love for us all, but at least an understanding.

As I move towards the last three volumes of Dance, I am increasingly of the view that this is one of the great works of literature, a masterpiece. The statistics, 3,000 pages, twelve volumes, are deeply offputting I admit. But the reward is worth it, each novel is itself only around 250 pages and each is enjoyable and challenging in its own right. This is deep stuff, lightly written, an example of what at its best literature is capable of.

The Military Philosophers


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

Awfully chic to be killed

The Soldier’s Art is the eighth volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, midway through Autumn, deep now into war.

Nick Jenkins has taken up a role as assistant to Widmerpool, now a Major serving at divisional HQ. It is 1941, air raids are frequent and the monotony of military life is at odds with the constant threat of enemy bombs.

As ever in Dance, this volume takes us through a handful of episodes in Nick’s life: a mess dinner; a period of leave back in London; political infighting within the division. Each, again as ever, is meticulously observed. The tone, however, is darkening and there is far less of the humour that leavened The Valley of Bones.

Old characters recur, Stringham makes a fresh appearance, Bithel introduced in The Valley of Bones continues as commander of the Mobile Laundry Unit, Moreland recurs as do several others met through the series. Each though is disturbed by wartime, relationships altered, lives changed, all is in flux, although as Nick at one point says:

‘Everything alters, yet does remain the same.

A line that could summarise the philosophy behind the whole of Dance so far.

New characters are also introduced, generals, colonels, men who served in the last war pressed into service again in this. At divisional HQ, and at the senior ranks, a certain eccentricity can it seems be afforded, again military life throws together men who in peacetime would naturally have nothing to do with each other. Descriptions are of course excellent:

Hogbourne-Johnson, a full colonel with red tabs, was in charge of operational duties, the staff officer who represented the General in all routine affairs. A Regular, decorated with an MC from the previous war, he was tall, getting decidedly fat, with a small beaky nose set above a pouting mouth turning down at the corners. He somewhat resembled an owl, an angry, ageing bird, recently baulked of a field-mouse and looking about for another small animal to devour.

Equally, of another man:

Above all, he bestowed around him a sense of smoothness, ineffable, unstemmable smoothness, like oil flowing ever so gently from the spout of a vessel perfectly regulated by its pourer, soft lubricating fluid, gradually, but irresistibly, spreading; and spreading, let it be said, over an unexpectedly wide, even a vast area.

This is a critical book in the series, so much so that I am reluctant to say too much about it for fear of ruining its many surprises. It deals in themes of transience and loss, of uncertainty. Much of the book is spent with characters’ futures unclear, for the military the possibility of promotion, expulsion, transfer, variously before them. For the civilians, new relationships and failing marriages against a backdrop of wartime privation make things little better.

For all the encroachment of chaos though, just as many are lost or discomifited by war, some always profit from it. Widmerpool is in his element, ceaselessly maneouvering to appoint those he prefers to places of utility, to defeat those he opposes, to secure his own advancement. Nick is faring less well, now dependent on Widmerpool’s favour, knowing that when Widmerpool is finally promoted Nick’s own post will be redundant and without help he will likely be despatched to the Infantry Training Course – a prospectless dead end.

Through Widmerpool, and the other officers Nick meets, we again of course explore different philosophies of life, Widmerpool living the life of the will, imposing himself by sheer force of personality upon the world and shaping it to his liking, creating order, his own lack of self-insight his greatest weapon. Others are equally ruthless, but charming, while others experience life as something that happens to them (Nick himself of course chief among these). There is no judgement here, no condemnation, merely an examination of how some by choice determine their own fate, while for others fate seems imposed by others or merely random.

For me, this was a hugely sad novel, filled with a sense of despondency. 1941 was, I believe, the bleakest time of the war: the German invasion of Russia comes only near the end of this volume, and of course the Americans are still nowhere to be seen. It is a time when defeat is a genuine possibility, Europe has fallen and without our benefit of hindsight for Nick and his compatriots the fall of Britain too is a very real possibility. The nightly bombs claim lives, offstage men Nick has come to know are reported killed, death is everywhere. In volume seven we entered the valley of bones, here we are deep inside it. The title of this blog entry is a quote from Stringham, and becomes a savagely ironic comment on what is happening to many of the fashionable set he once belonged to.

With all that, there are still some definite moments of humour, Powell is an effortlessly witty writer when he wishes to be, I particularly liked this sly dig at amateur novelists:

‘I never get time to settle down to serious writing,’ he used to say, thereby making what almost amounted to a legal declaration in defining his own inclusion within an easily recognisable category of non-starting litetary apprenticeship.

A conversation between Nick and a general about the merits of Trollope is also very funny. More subtly, a conversation between Nick and Stringham veers from the tragic, to the absurd, to the comic as Stringham realises he is only talking about himself – asks Nick how he is doing – then interrupts to talk unselfconsciously again about his own concerns.

Finally, as throughout the series, there is a sense at times of classical drama, of the mythic reflected in the mundane. Here, Nick and Moreland exit a restaurant during Nick’s leave:

We paid the bill, went out into Regent Street. In the utter blackness, the tarts, strange luminous forms of nocturnal animal life, flickered the bulbs of their electric torches. From time to time one of them would play the light against her own face in self-advertisement, giving the effect of candles illuminating a holy picture in the shadows of a church.

Classicism, change, fate, philosophy, death, there is a lot here. With so downbeat a volume this wasn’t my favourite of the series so far by any means, but it still had real power, at times devastating effect. Here, some leave the dance, not everyone makes it out of this volume alive, and having spent much of seven previous volumes getting to know these characters, seeing their lives, the shock of their deaths is all the more real. Literature struggles with the finality and stupidity of death, here Powell meets it head on and by the sheer breadth and ambition of his work makes us feel it as few other novelists can.

Or that’s one take, but as Stringham says in one of the truest lines I’ve read in a while:

Like everything that’s any good, it has about twenty different meanings.

The Soldier’s Art


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already

The Valley of Bones is volume seven of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It continues the overall seasonal theme of the series, here heading into autumn, and into war.

As the novel opens, it is 1940 and Nick Jenkins (the series’ narrator) finds himself attached as a junior officer to a Welsh infantry regiment on exercises, but which has no immediate prospect of a combat posting. This is not then a novel of war in the conventional sense, indeed it is no spoiler to say that in this novel Nick does not go to war at all, rather here we see with Nick the tedium and daily grind of army life, its absurdities, its necessities, the boredom and the loneliness of men forced into each others’ company and away from the company of those they love.

For most of this novel Nick is apart from his family and friends, the characters we have grown used to are absent. Instead, we meet new faces, people with whom Nick shares the officers’ mess and the men under them. As ever, these are well realised and credible, Captain Gwatkin with his ambitions to be a great soldier, held back however by his caution and his over-romanticisation of military life; Bithel who is hopelessly ill-suited to the job, but who lied to the recruiters about family connections and past glories in order to gain a place; Kedward, solid and capable, efficient but without (perhaps efficient because without) the eccentricities of Gwatkin or Bithel.

Among the enlisted men too there are well crafted individuals, Gittins, the extraordinarily parsimonious manager of the Company Store (“where he guarded every item as if it were his own personal property acquired only after long toil and self-denial. Nothing was more difficult than to extort from him even the most insignificant replacement of kit.”); Corporal Gwylt, the company womaniser; verbose (but competent and reliable) Company Sergeant-Major Cadwallader, there are many others each well realised even where their parts in the narrative are small.

The quality of the characterisation is key here, this is a novel in which little happens in one sense, most of it is spent in the company of men who have little meaningful to do, the pleasure in large part is observing them with each other, the social nuances implicit in men being thrown together despite often having nothing particular in common.

Often it’s very funny, the interactions between officers and men, Nick hearing the men late at night in the company store – listening to Lord Haw-Haw and discussing the consequences of Germany winning the war (“If Hitler wins the war, I tell you lad, We’ll go down the mines for sixpence a day.”), or how terrible it would be to be required to go up in an aircraft, which reminds one of them of a story:

‘You make me think of Dai and Shoni when they went up in a balloon.’
‘And what was that, I wonder.’
‘They took two women with them.’
‘Did they, then?’
‘When the balloon was in the sky, the air began to leak something terrible out of it, it did, and Dai was frightened, so frightened Dai was, and Dai said to Shoni, Look you, Shoni, this balloon is not safe at all, and the air is leaking out of it terrible, we shall have to jump for it, and Shoni said to Dai, But, Dai, what about the women? and Dai said, Oh, fook the women, and Shoni said, But have we time?’

Powell himself served as a second lieutenant in a Welsh regiment, where he was much older than the average officer and where as a writer his background was quite different to the others, who were mostly Welsh bank managers. In Valley, Nick has the same experience, indeed the events in Valley and the events in Powell’s own life almost directly correlate: the regiment’s duties, its posting to Ireland, the weeding out of weaker officers, the relocation of the regiment to a crumbling manor house, all this happened to Powell and all of it happens to Nick too. It’s hardly surprising I was so impressed by how real it all felt, it’s based very closely it seems on Powell’s own experience of army life. So closely, that to read of his time in the army would actually spoil the few plot developments in the novel.

The book also captures well the strange mix of the vitally important and the utterly absurd that Nick finds in the army. A general’s inspection becomes a bizarre interrogation of the men as to their like or dislike of porridge for breakfast, a cup of tea becomes more important than almost anything on Earth, almost:

In the army sleep is prized more than anything else; beyond food, beyond even tea.

And yet, while exercises go comically wrong, while some of those present should clearly never be allowed near a loaded weapon, underlying it all is a terrible seriousness. Britain is at war, some of these men will go into combat, some will not return. Where an exercise goes wrong it’s funny in part, Gwatkin’s obsession with getting every detail perfect meaning that he misses his overall objective, but the point of the exercise is ultimately to keep men alive when their time for fighting comes. It is funny, but it is also really nothing of the sort.

As the book continues, death creeps in at the edges. One man dies in what may be suicide, may be murder by Irish separatists, may be just an accident in the dark with a rifle that probably shouldn’t even have been loaded. Nobody really knows, the man is still dead. Duty continues, the war becomes a little more real.

Nick goes on leave, spending time with his heavily pregnant wife, with family and friends. Here Powell takes a moment to fill in more of his larger canvass, updating us as to the progress of other characters, some with wartime are flowering, aspects of their character previously unrealised coming to the fore. Also, Powell shows the social change conflict brings, grand houses being adapted for use by troops. War is an opportunity for some, a leveller for others.

If I were to criticise, I could note that this is the most male of the novels so far, women are largely offscreen, the army is a world of men and their interactions with women are highly restricted, mostly involving encounters with girls near their camps. There is, as always with Powell, a sense that the women do have inner lives – we gain further insight into Nick’s old lover, Jean Templer – but by and large women are absent from this particular narrative and mens’ relations with them reduced to their simplest:

‘Not feeling much like going on the square tomorrow, are you?’ said Stevens. ‘Still, it was the hell of a good weekend’s leave. I had one of the local girls under a hedge.’

It’s difficult to see, however, how the novel’s masculine flavour could be avoided given it is a story of army life from the perspective of one man in one regiment. The absence of women and the effect on men of their absence is part of what the novel talks about, and as such it’s difficult to address that while still having well rounded female characters present.

Slowly, the war comes closer. Some men earlier detached from the regiment to active duty are reported dead at the front, Nick hears of other deaths, some people he knew in peacetime. The war is starting to change his world more fundamentally than its immediate impact of relocating him and forcing him to live with strangers. As readers, we learn something of what life during wartime was like, the original readers I suspect would simply have been reminded of it.

Valley is a remarkable work, witty, well observed, with a tremendous grasp of period and a mounting sense of what is to come. Reading Powell is like diving into a pool of clear water, immensely refreshing, invigorating even and it quite washes away any feelings of ennui that reading lesser works occasionally brings on. I’m tremendously excited about starting the next in the sequence.

The Valley of Bones


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

Love means such different things to different people

The Kindly Ones is the sixth volume of Anthony Powell’s twelve volume epic, A Dance to the Music of Time. I have been working slowly through the whole sequence for the past few months, but recently had fallen out of the habit, so that as time passed the prospect of picking up the next volume became increasingly intimidating.

Which was my loss, because when I forced myself to pick up volume six, I remembered within a page quite how good a writer Powell is, quite how refreshing it is to dip into one of his books, and quite how much I enjoy this series. Twelve volumes makes for an intimidating target, that’s true, but so far each volume has been a genuine pleasure to read and there is a lightness to Powell’s prose which makes him slip down very easily indeed.

As with other works in the series, The Kindly Ones is formed of a handful of incidents in the life of the narrator, Nick Jenkins, each described in some detail. We open with his recollection of some scenes from childhood, just before the onset of the First World War. We then move back to his present, to 1938 and 1939 and a Britain again faced with the threat of war. This threat is one that in 1938 some still some dismiss as too unlikely to bear out, but which by 1939 has become an unavoidable certainty. In 1938 we accompany Nick on a trip to the country, culminating in a dinner party at the home of a wealthy industrialist and slightly drunken after-dinner party games. In 1939 Nick stays in a bed and breakfast run by an old family servant, arranging the affairs of a dead relative who had gone to stay there. Finally we have Nick’s efforts to use personal connections to get himself appointed as an infantry officer before the fighting starts – despite him having left it a little late and being just a touch too old.

Ordinary life then, ordinary life of the times in which the book is set at any rate. Part of the brilliance of the Dance sequence is how we explore the characters through their quotidian existences, dinner parties, dances, nights with friends, but through all this mundanity we also explore themes which are complex and subtle. Here the characters’ lives are overshadowed by the prospect of war, and by the Kindly Ones, the furies of Greek myth, the Eumenides:

I recalled Mrs Orchard’s account of the Furies. They inflicted the vengeance of the gods by bringing in their train war, pestilence, dissension on earth; torturing, too, by the stings of conscience. that last characteristic alone, I could plainly see, made them sufficiently unwelcome guests.

The Kindly Ones also follows the pattern of previous novels by introducing new characters and themes, while continuing to develop existing ones. If anything, Dance increasingly reminds me of a symphony, as we reach the middle parts more instruments join, more motifs emerge, but certain underlying refrains repeat and grant a consistency to the whole.

Here, recurring themes include the way some live by the will, forcing their perceptions and views upon those around them and by sheer obstinacy of vision controlling their own reality; the way human natures are essentially fixed; and the way people may change in their superficialities and circumstances, our perception of them may shift with greater knowledge or changes to our own situation, but the essence of the person remains the same throughout. Above all, the key theme remains the impossibility of knowing another human being or of understanding the inner truth of another couple’s relationship

One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.

The Kindly Ones also sees Powell return to the interest in spiritualism present in certain parts of British society during the inter-war years, introducing the somewhat comic figure of Dr. Trelawney, a spiritual guru leading a commune near Nick’s childhood home and who Nick encounters again when he is grown and the Dr. an old man.

As ever, Powell shows a sly wit, his descriptions of individuals frequently managing to bring them fully to life while being at the same time very funny. Here he describes Nick’s father, a man of constant irritability who forever finds the world ever so slightly not quite up to scratch:

My father really hated clarity. This was a habit of mind that sometimes led him into trouble with others, when, unable to apprehend his delight in complicated metaphor and ironic allusion, they had not the faintest idea what he was talking about.

And here Nick and his old friend Moreland discuss Trelawney, and the place of men like him in the world of 1938:

‘What will happen to people like him as the world plods on to standardisation? Will they cease to be born, or find jobs in other professions? I suppose there will always be a position for a man with first-class magical qualifications.’

The Kindly Ones themselves act as a running theme in this volume, both in the coming of war (in 1914 and again in 1939) and in the pricking of consciences. When Nick stays at the bed and breakfast, he encounters a man whose wife he once slept with, and ends up having to spend the evening drinking with him and hearing accounts of the marriage and the wife very different to those he once heard from her. Other marriages are no more successful, with resentment, infidelity and mismatched couples all making an appearance.

Not every aspect of this volume works, a comic episode in 1914 involving cars of the day ends with Uncle Giles stating his dislike of them, and how some Austrian archduke down in Bosnia just had a terrible mishap in one, getting himself shot. The conversation doesn’t wholly persuade, and is for me a rare example with Powell of his themes intruding a little too obviously into the characters’ reality. Equally, Powell continues to be far better at portraying the middle and upper classes, than he is the working.

Other elements, however, show Powell’s characteristic sureness of touch. Recently, I was discussing with Rob of The Fiction Desk how with long running crime series it can be a problem for an author to juggle the needs of writing an interesting novel with the desire of the fans to see what is happening to each of the characters established in earlier works. Rob pointed out that this is simply one of the challenges writers must face. At the time, I thought him a touch harsh, but reading this volume I see that in fact he was completely correct. When Moreland, Nick’s old friend, is reintroduced into the narrative I found myself for a moment struggling to remember exactly who he was among Dance’s vast and diverse cast. However, within a page he had, quite naturally in conversation, referred to the possiblity of himself writing a symphony – he came flooding back to me – Moreland, the composer, of course.

It was cleverly done, and it was noticeable given I had left a longer gap between volumes this time than usual quite how good Powell is at making sure you remember who people are. In a series of this breadth, this ambition to portray a whole society, it’s an essential talent and one Powell repeatedly displays to tremendous effect.

I don’t wish here to discuss plot, I rarely do on this blog, therefore there is a limit to how much more I wish to say at all. Powell is a writer of huge talent, Dance is a series with immense scope, in which characters come and go, living wholly convincing lives yet at the same time embodying themes of social change, aristocratic decline, disparate approaches to life, the crafting by people of their personal narratives and the illusions they live by and much more. I have touched on only a handful of the matters and characters contained in this (just 254 page) volume and the characters who recur within it and continue living their own lives in various proximities to Nick’s. Nick’s world is a breathing one, convincing in its internal connections and its sense that even the more minor characters remain consistent to themselves (sometimes by their still showing the same inconsistencies…).

The Kindly Ones includes then friendship, love, infidelity, guilt, fortune and misfortune. It contains a great deal of comedy, from curious individuals, unlikely (to Nick, anyway) developments and chance discoveries, but it also contains a fair helping of pain and loss and emotional bewilderment. As Moreland states:

One of the worst things about life is not how nasty the nasty people are. You know that already. It is how nasty the nice people can be.

The Kindly Ones


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

Do you remember when we went on the ghost railway – when you dash toward closed doors and tear down hill towards a body across the line?

Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is the fifth volume of Anthony Powell’s epic twelve volume masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time. I’ve previously blogged about Dance,, and it’s worth reading that entry before this one or what I write today will make relatively little sense.

Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant opens with a leap forward in time from the close of the previous volume, opening shortly (it seems, the date is not specified) after World War 2 with Nick Jenkins (the narrator) visiting a bombed out public house which he used to attend with Moreland, a friend we have not previously encountered in the series. Nick refers on page 2 of the novel to “Moreland’s memory”, implying that Moreland has died at some point prior to this opening passage. From there, we swiftly segue into a recollection of an occasion at the pub in the 1920s, and find ourselves again in that period (an earlier period now from the closing of volume 4, we have gone backwards in time within the overall narrative). Within a few pages we have met many of Nick’s old friends, several of whom however have not previously been mentioned leading to a slight suspicion that we are moving into backstory in order to retrospectively introduce new characters. There are other possible explanations for this, for me at least, slightly jarring temporal shift and the discovery that Nick has old friends who (after four previous volumes) I was unaware of.

Nick’s new old friends are part of London’s musical scene, Moreland is a promising young composer, another friend Maclintick is a rather morose music critic, we meet a violinist named simply Carolo and we re-encounter some more familiar figures who serve to root the new characters more firmly as part of Nick’s world. Previous volumes have explored, to varying degrees, London’s literary and artistic scenes and one possible explanation for the rather sudden introduction of these new figures is that Powell now wishes to turn his attention to the world of music and that an introduction of these characters at an earlier and arguably more logical point in the narrative might have distracted from his desired focus. I have to admit, this approach did detract from the early parts of this volume for me, but by the midpoint of the novel I had accepted them as part of Dance’s cast and by the end I thought this volume still powerful and effective.

As is customary in each volume, we experience a handful of distinct scenes, each described in careful detail. An evening out with Moreland, Maclintock and others starting at the pub and going on to dinner at Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, where the assembled men talk about women and there are many references to time and space and how they interact (the characters’ conversation perhaps reflecting the structure of the novel they are part of). We then move suddenly, in the space of a sentence, to five or six years later and the early 1930s as Nick goes to the theatre with Moreland to meet Moreland’s intended future wife, and where Nick encounters again some familiar figures from his past.

We then leap forward again, now to 1936 or so and to a day in Nick’s life. We open with a Tolland family lunch (Nick by this point having married a woman named Isobel Tolland), we are introduced to various members of the extended Tolland family (reintroduced in some cases) and we meet again a guest in the form of the once celebrated but now unfashionable writer St John Clarke. Isobel is absent, being in a nursing home. Nick moves from lunch to visiting Isobel at the home and while there he runs once more into Moreland and coincidentally into Widmerpool. Moreland persuades Nick to spend the evening with him, and they call on Maclintock who lives trapped in a miserable marriage with Carolo now having become an unwelcome lodger.

The novel continues in this manner, we move forward a year or two later, and over a number of expertly depicted social occasions we see these characters meet and hear how each of their individual stories are progressing.

Powell paints his characters in miniatures, and in some ways this makes his work difficult to adequately describe. Characters are captured in throwaway remarks or chance encounters, the small detail is critical. We see people through the banalities of an uncomfortable evening as long standing marital disputes simmer, through conversation at a lunch, through truths awkwardly revealed in a moment of drunkenness. We see St John Clarke who through the series has been reduced from a major literary figure to an afterthought, a man whose work has become an anachronism and who has had the tragedy to outlive his own relevance. We see the sniping between Maclintock and his wife, perfectly captured, in all its ugliness (including the joy an unhappy spouse can take at belittling their partner) and we see another marriage threatened by an affair and the way in which some marriages survive and some do not. We see how people discuss matters of terrible consequence, the Spanish civil war, over lunch and we see how a distant war can be of less import than gossip about the abdication of Edward VIII.

Much of the novel remains very funny, often combining comedy with the uncomfortably tragic. We learn at the nursing home that Isobel is resident recovering from a miscarriage, Moreland is there because his wife is recovering from giving birth, but their baby died a few days after being born. As they talk, a boorish doctor that Nick knows from school lectures them about the miscarriage rate in England utterly oblivious to how inappropriate his remarks must be. When Nick first encounters the doctor he seeks to remind him of their time at school together:

“but he brushed the words aside with a severe ‘Yes, yes, yes…’ at the same time taking my hand in a firm, smooth, interrogatory, medical grip, no doubt intended to give confidence to a patient, but in fact striking at once a disturbing interior dread at the possibilities of swift and devastating diagnosis.”

The episode with the doctor is in microcosm a demonstration of Powell’s skill. The doctor is a bore, he is wholly insensitive to the fact both men before him are friends who have just met after some sizeable gap of time and that both have just lost children, and yet some power of social convention allows him to pin both of them without hope of escape and to impose his will upon them (another common theme of Dance, men who live by the exercise of the will, able to dominate others even though there is often no good reason why they should be able to do so beyond their own certainty that they can). Powell excels at the depiction of social dilemmas, awkward situations, the tiny challenges and triumphs of the everyday.

This is a book filled with failure, with people dealing with the consequences of not achieving that which they desire. Nick and Isobel lose their baby, Moreland and Matilda (his wife) see theirs die, Moreland launches a new composition but while it is good it is not great, Carolo spends his time sitting Banquoesque at the Maclintock’s dinner table writing his own composition which nobody seems interested in, the Maclintock’s marriage is a toxic wasteland, Nick’s old school friend Stringham reappears but he is drunk and has become a tragic figure increasingly cut off from life by his alcoholism (again, brilliantly portrayed), Erridge goes to fight for the Left in Spain but returns having fallen mildly ill and unable to return due to his incurral of the loathing of every group he encountered there.

Disappointment, failure both private and public, the gap between private ambition and public assessment, all these run through this volume making it in places a gloomy affair despite the humour. Nick is in his 30s by now presumably, his life is less carefree than once was the case, maturity is not an unmixed blessing.

As well as examining failure, we also examine three marriages (which may or may not also be failures): Nick and Isobel, the Maclintocks, Moreland and Matilda. Nick ruminates at one point in a passage which seems almost a manifesto direct from Powell himself:

“A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects. To think at all objectively about one’s own marriage is impossible, while a balanced view of other people’s marriage is almost equally hard to achieve with so much information available, so little to be believed. Objectivity is not, of course, everything in writing; but, even after one has cast objectivity aside, the difficulties of presenting marriage are inordinate. Its forms are so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of a friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such – and a thousand more – dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.”

It seems to me here, Powell not only describes his view of marriage itself as ultimately unknowable, of other people as essentially beyond comprehension, but he also describes his own achievement and the impossibility of his own goals within this very work – “Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects.” Given that Nick is himself a minor writer at this point in the story, there is thankfully no incongruity involved in him thinking these kinds of thoughts, it is not one of those occasions where you balk at the evident insertion of the writer’s thoughts into an inappropriate character’s head.

Although this is not a plot driven work (arguably there is no plot as such, merely incidents in lives as they are lived), one of the great pleasures of it is to see lives unfolding and the surprises and ironies they bring with them. There is much I cannot describe without spoiling that pleasure for those who may read this and then go on to read Powell, often there is clear and intentional irony between what we learn of a character’s past and how their life develops. Promise is not always fulfilled, past conduct is no great predictor of future behaviour, characters act very credibly out of character. These ironies are sometimes very funny, sometimes not at all so. There is a sense in which the pleasures of Dance are the pleasures of a highbrow soap opera, though I think to approach it purely in that regard is to miss a great deal of what is being discussed within the novels. This is ambitious work, and that in itself is something I always find refreshing.

To conclude, the title of this blog entry is taken from a question which occurs at the beginning of the novel and is reprised at the end, Moreland has a fondness for ghost trains, asking Nick early on “Do you remember when we went on the ghost railway – when you dash toward closed doors and tear down hill towards a body across the line?” This image of the ghost train runs through the novel, though only referenced twice. Characters hurtle along, without control of their journey, they encounter things only part seen and there is much to enjoy along the way. But there is also a body across the line at the end. In this volume we see lives starting to take a perhaps irrevocable shape, maturity being in part a commitment to one life over others whether that commitment was chosen or not, we see the long shadow of mortality and the limits of time beginning to be felt. The characters are on the train, but for some of them the destination will not be a happy one, and in the end for all of them it will be a final one.


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

A Dance to the Music of Time: Summer

Originally posted 17 July 2008, thankfully.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a twelve volume epic work by Anthony Powell, whether you take it as twelve distinct novels or one large novel in twelve volumes is a matter for the reader. Each volume does stand alone, but they are intrinsically linked one to the other and in a very real sense Dance is a single 3,000 page novel.

Dance is widely seen as one of the finest works of literature in the English language, which makes it more surprising it’s not better known. I suspect the length is a factor there, as embarking on a 3,000 page journey is simply not practical for a great many people. Dance is also often compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a comparison I can’t unfortunately comment on at this time as although I have Proust sitting on my shelf at home I haven’t started it yet, I’m planning to read that in 2009.

Dance is a work of comic fiction, though dryly comic rather than laugh out loud. It follows the lives of a group of upper middle class and aristocractic men and women in the inter-war years and beyond, starting with several of the characters in school and ending I understand (since I haven’t finished the twelve volumes yet) with the eventual deaths of some of them years later. It’s themes are many, and I’ll get to them in more detail shortly, but essentially it’s ambition is to portray whole lives and to show how they intersect and impact on each other, in a sense how the various participants dance together to the music of time. Dance is commonly divided into four seasons, Spring for the first three novels, Summer for the next three and so on.

This morning I finished the fourth novel in the sequence, At Lady Molly’s, the first novel in the Summer part of the work. As is typical of the volumes so far, the novel takes a handful of scenes and explores them in some detail. A dinner, a house party, a night out, an engagement party. Each volume so far has worked in this way, we see the characters revealed in fairly quotidian circumstances, as chance and the passing of time bring them together at a social event or they hear of each other from mutual acquaintances.

The narrator is one Nick Jenkins, a quiet young man who initially works in a minor art publishing house and who by this point has become a scriptwriter for second features, English films which are required by law to be shown together with US films as a means of supporting the domestic film industry. Nick appears largely to be a fairly reliable narrator, although only to an extent as the impossibility of ever really understanding the acts and nature of another is one of the key themes of the novel.

Other characters are legion, from Widmerpool (arguably the true protagonist of the whole series) – currently a banker, to Quiggin – a young writer of communist leanings, Peter Templer – an old schoolfriend of Nick’s and now also a banker, Elridge – an eccentric peer with an interest in left wing politics, Mona – a hard-nosed former model, Mildred Haycock – Widmerpool’s fiance and a much older and more worldly person than he is, General Conyers, Lady Molly, Alfred Tolland, there are many others (and there are many key characters from previous novels who do not appear in this particular one or are merely referenced in passing). The novels are thick with characters, most of whom recur from volume to volume in greater or lesser roles as their lives continue to intersect. Part of the fascination of the work is the manner in which it creates a wholly credible milieu, a world full of people each of whom seems to have their own life and their own reality, it is I think an accomplishment which is only possible in large part due to the very size of the work and the space that grants.

Much of the comment I have seen online on the work treats it essentially as a sort of superior soap opera, and certainly it can be read in that way. One can (and people often seem to) marvel at how appalling Quiggin and Widmerpool are (though I’m not at all persuaded they are presented as mere objects of ridicule, rather they are simply people of a type who exist in the world and who tend not to be popular) or see how early promise is fulfilled or all too often unfulfilled. Equally, it can be read as a cleverly observed comedy in which the foibles of the characters are exposed and in which we see ordinary vanities and ambitions held up and gently satirised. This is though very much a multi-layered work, and while it can be enjoyed simply as soap opera or comic novel, it also is a work with some very serious themes which are explored at length and in depth.

Different readers will draw different themes, this is a subtle work with much in it, but of the many themes so far emerging the key one for me at this point is that of the ultimate unknowability of other people. Nick encounters some characters as a schoolboy, and forms judgements of them. Later he meets them in other contexts, socially, in business, as lovers. As the contexts change, so too do his assessments of these characters, but it is unclear if they have actually changed or merely his perception of them. A character at school may seem one way, when met with his friends may seem another, when met in his role as a businessman another way again. The character of any given individual varies by the context they are in, and we do not know if they are changing as they grow older, or are merely seen in more lights.

This is key to the work in my view, arguably none of the characters change much at all, I think it is saying that arguably nobody ever really does. Rather, people are exposed as they grow older to more contexts, so more sides of them emerge and so we see them in different ways. People do not change, our perceptions of those people do.

Alternatively, perhaps they do change, since we never really know anyone to begin with how would we know? Characters often do things which appear to Nick out of character, yet the skill of the work is such that our credulity is not strained. Rather, people act out of character in the way people in real life often do act out of what we perceive as their character. Have they changed, or did we not properly understand them to begin with? Do we understand anyone, even ourselves?

Other themes emerge, tolerance is among them, the work is very sympathetic to gays and indeeed to outsiders of many stripes (though not unfortunately to other races, the second volume contains some fairly unpleasant racial descriptions). There is generally a compassion for those who do not quite fit, for whatever reason. The vagaries of success and failure, we cannot reliably predict (or I cannot anyway, but then I could never guess the end of Christie novels so I may just be poor at prediction) how characters will fare as time passes. The decline of the aristocracy, and of the world of which they were part. There is room for examination of the impact of fashion on art, of the seeming randomness of love and passion, on how solitary people can over time become increasingly distant to ordinary social concerns.

Coincidence plays a large part in the novel, characters often meet by chance (though years can pass one novel to the next, we are in each novel witnessing specifically those occasions when chance has brought people together) and lives often parallel each other in ways that seem somehow meaningful. Synchronicity and pattern are also among the themes, the ways in which lives can seem to have some greater order than mere happenstance, this is arguably the theme most alien to contemporary viewpoints since although there is no particular evidence of god in the novels there does seem to be a pattern to events which is acausal yet meaningful. Jung is expressly referred to on occasion, and were I more familiar with Jung’s work I suspect there is a lot of additional material I would draw from the novels that currently passes me by. Then again, this may be simply another example of how perception creates meaning, we see patterns when all that may be happening is a mix of the random and the explicable though not explained (the characters are all in the same milieu, it is not that odd that some of their lives reflect each other or that they run into each other on occasion, even if it may sometimes seem odd to them).

Equally, perception shapes reality. Widmerpool for example lives by the will (as it is expressed in the novel), he shapes the world about him in large part by how he chooses (or is bound by his nature) to perceive it. Others too shape their own reality, though perhaps not as forcibly as Widmerpool manages. Sometimes this theme is made explicit, as in a conversation between Nick and General Conyers at the end of which Nick thinks to himself of them leaving the cocoon of fantasy they had built to return to reality, or perhaps instead leaving the reality they had built to return to the fantasy of the ordinary social world. By our perception of our lives, we shape our lives, and even if the facts do not always meet our perception still our internal narrative is real to us and as such from our perspective is the only reality we know. Different characters are involved at times in the same events, but they do not appear to perceive them in the same way, and so in some senses do not experience the same events at all. Again, we are in the world of perception, and of how our perceptions and changes to them shape how we think about the world and about each other.

Despite all these fairly complex themes, the unknowability of others, how our perceptions shape our realities, coincidence and meaning, art, tolerance, love, many others which I haven’t spoken to, the novels are actually very accessible. These are easy reads, funny and entertaining. For a work of such remarkable ambition it is remarkably easy to get involved with (although I tend to try to read two or three other books between each volume, so as not to overwhelm myself with 3,000 pages in one go – given they were written over a 24 year period I don’t think one need read them in one continuous approach).

This is a complex and rewarding stuff, written lightly so that the complexity is easily assimilated. I genuinely think this a great work of English literature (although I say that having only read a third of it as yet), I have barely touched on its depth here and indeed at least one entire book has been written on the characters and themes of Dance. Many of the characters contain, in their own right, examinations of specific issues and themes and the breadth of the work is such that little short of another book could do it justice. In the end, however, the work is sufficiently readable that it needs little by way of explanatory analysis, one can simply read it and see for oneself.

The link immediately below is to the book I just read, which of course is volume 4. The second link is to volume 1, I strongly recommend reading the novels in their intended sequence.


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony